Liberal senator, Tasmanian salmon farming lobby call for defunding of Environmental Defenders Office

Liberal senator, Tasmanian salmon farming lobby call for defunding of Environmental Defenders Office
  • PublishedJuly 7, 2024

An environmental advocacy legal centre that has been advocating for tougher regulation of salmon farming activities on the state’s west coast should be defunded because it is jeopardising local jobs, according to a federal Liberal senator and Salmon Tasmania.

Senator Jonathon Duniam and Salmon Tasmania chief executive Luke Martin have called on the federal government to cut its funding to the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), which provides legal support and advice in environmental cases.

Senator Duniam and Mr Martin have accused the environmental organisation of using its funding to conduct ‘green lawfare’, a term used to describe the use of legal action to cause problems for an opponent.

“Make no mistake, every one of those dollars flowing to those organisations is being used to hold up job-creating entities that create projects that sustain employment and economic activity right across our country,” Senator Duniam said.

Map showing Macquarie Harbour location in Tasmania.
The Maugean skate shares Macquarie Harbour with the salmon industry.(Google Earth)
The Maugean skate shares Macquarie Harbour with the salmon industry.(Google Earth)

At a joint press conference, Mr Martin questioned if the allocation of taxpayers dollars was best used towards funding the EDO.

“Through that really aggressive legal action [and] well-funded lawyered-up activism, you’ve really got to ask the question — is that the best use of taxpayers’ dollars?” Mr Martin asked.

“The Environmental Defenders Office is effectively using that money to then turn around to absolutely attack and undermine many workers.”

Last year, the Australia Institute, Bob Brown Foundation and the EDO requested the federal government “reconsider” whether the salmon farming industry has all the environmental approvals under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

It prompted federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to reconsider the impact of salmon farming on the endangered Maugean skate, and whether or not she’ll make any changes to current operations in Macquarie Harbour.

The pair are also calling for greater transparency around donation disclosures and “play by the same rules as everyone else”.

“[We’re not] suggesting these organisations shouldn’t receive donations, but [they] need to be clear and transparent about who their donors are and what their motivations are,” Mr Martin said.

In 2013, the Abbott Liberal government cut funding to the EDO, a decision reversed in 2022 by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who committed $8.2 million over four years.

“The Environmental Defenders Office is an apolitical, not-for-profit organisation,” said Claire Bookless, managing lawyer at EDO Tasmania.

Ms Bookless said the office provides important community legal service and relies on donations from the public for a majority of its income.

“The funding that we receive from the Commonwealth government is a significant portion of our funding and it’s vital to ensure that we can continue to offer the same level of service that we offer to the Tasmanian and broader Australian public.

“I think the government recognises that this is a community legal centre … and we’ve been offering this service for the past 30 years.

“The need in the community for the services that we provide are greater now more than ever.”

In January, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton vowed, if elected, to strip the EDO of funding, adding its work across Australia “does stymie existing projects and it does stop new endeavours from taking off”. 

Salmon company Tassal defends its farming practices
Tasmania’s three major salmon companies — Tassal, Huon Aquaculture and Petuna — have farming leases in Macquarie Harbour.(ABC News: Michael Cavanagh)

The EDO has long advocated for more more effective environmental regulation of fish farming in Macquarie Harbour on the state’s west coast, which is home to the endangered Maugean skate.

The skate’s population has declined significantly in recent years, and there are believed to be fewer than 1,000 left in the wild.

The decline was caused by reduced dissolved oxygen levels, which occurred between 2009 and 2015 — coinciding with the substantial increase in salmon farming in the harbour, along with other factors.

Tasmania’s three major salmon companies — TassalHuon Aquaculture and Petuna — operate farming leases in Macquarie Harbour.

In response to declining water quality, fish farm biomass limits were reduced from 29,000 tonnes to 9,000 tonnes in 2020, followed by limits on nitrogen levels.

There have been other efforts to improve depleted oxygen levels in the harbour, including the trial of an oxygenation ‘bubbler’ which was jointly funded by the Commonwealth and salmon farming industry.

A recent report by Tasmania’s Environment Protection Authority (EPA) from last month found long-term data shows oxygen levels in the harbour are close to the range observed before 2010, when they began to decline.

However, EPA director Wes Ford said the Macquarie Harbour Oxygenation Project had “not yet reached its full scale and is unlikely to have had a significant impact upon oxygen levels across the harbour”.


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